Scientists Getting Angry Over Funding Woes

LATE LAST YEAR, Michel Desjardins, who holds a Canada Research Chair in cellular microbiology at the Université de Montréal, applied for a research grant from Genome Canada, the arms-length foundation that since 2000 has provided most of the federal money in Canada that goes toward genetic research.

Scientists Getting Angry Over Funding Woes

LATE LAST YEAR, Michel Desjardins, who holds a Canada Research Chair in cellular microbiology at the Université de Montréal, applied for a research grant from Genome Canada, the arms-length foundation that since 2000 has provided most of the federal money in Canada that goes toward genetic research. Genome Canada grants are assigned competitively, but Desjardins had reason to be optimistic. In a previous competition, Genome Canada had granted him money for projects that led to research papers in two prestigious journals, Cell and Nature. Both papers have received extraordinary international acclaim.

A year ago, Desjardins and a private company he helped to found, Caprion, won a US$13 million contract from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to study the way proteins interact in Brucella, an obscure pathogen often found in unpasteurized milk or cheese. Brucella doesn't kill many people in a year, but some people think it could be used by terrorists to kill a lot more - which made the NIH so eager to study Brucella that it awarded a rare defence research contract to a non-American research team.

Desjardins now wanted to apply the expertise he'd acquired with the NIH money to a far nastier bug. Tuberculosis kills perhaps two million people a year, most of them in the developing world. It is caused by tiny, tube-shaped mycobacteria, which have a habit in common with Brucella: when they enter the lungs of their human host and are attacked by specialized defence cells, they change their appearance by synthesizing new proteins. Desjardins wanted to analyze those proteins as the first step toward blocking their production and leaving the deadly mycobacteria naked and defenceless.

Genome Canada funds only half the cost of a research project. It requires that researchers identify other agencies or private-sector donors willing to pay the other half. These "co-funding" arrangements are designed to make tax dollars go twice as far, because this research can be very costly. Desjardins' tuberculosis project had an $8-million budget, so he needed $4 million from Genome Canada. In his application, he listed the earlier NIH contract and Caprion as sources for the rest of the money. "If we were to try to develop the same tools that [Caprion] did, all by ourselves in academia, it would cost tens of millions of dollars," Desjardins said in an interview.

In April, Desjardins sat in Montreal before an eight-member review panel from Genome Canada to defend his project, not on the quality of its science, but on his plans for managing and funding it. This was the so-called "due diligence" step in the grant competition, and it was the first time Genome Canada applications had gone through this stage before being judged on their scientific merit.

Near the end of April, Genome Canada told Desjardins his project had been rejected.

He never had a chance to defend his science in front of other scientists. To Desjardins, this was a fundamental breakdown in the doctrine of "peer review," by which scientists decide among themselves which of their colleagues should have a project funded or a paper published. "This was really a unique chance for Canada to distinguish itself and put together an effort regarding a disease that is defined as a major challenge by all the organizations that deal with infection," he said. "I think there was an opportunity here that was missed - basically by rules that almost came out of the blue."

Desjardins contacted John Bergeron, the chairman of McGill University's anatomy and cell biology department. Bergeron is the elected president of the Human Proteome Organization, a global body coordinating research in the promising new field of proteomics. Whereas genomics studies the genes that encode the characteristics of a living organism, proteomics studies the proteins that allow those genes to be expressed in the way a creature lives, moves, responds to injury or fights off attack.

From the Montreal headquarters of the Human Proteome Organization, Bergeron coordinates research in the United States, China, Sweden, France, Britain and Germany. In a submission to the latest Genome Canada competition, he also proposed his own research into the ways mouse proteins could serve as models for human proteins. It was to be Canada's contribution to the global effort.

Bergeron, too, was turned down, ostensibly because his co-funding arrangements weren't robust enough.

The two Montrealers emailed Mike Tyers, a senior scientist at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. Tyers was part of an international, multidisciplinary effort to study how relatively small molecules in drugs interact with living organisms. As part of their proposal, Tyers' group had spent about $100,000 on architects' plans to show how their research equipment would fit in a new University of Toronto building.

Genome Canada rejected Tyers, too, before his peers could judge the intellectual quality of his work.

Biomedical researchers in Canada are a tightly knit community. It didn't take long for rejected scientists to find one another and compare notes. In a series of interviews with Maclean's, more than a dozen researchers across the country depicted Genome Canada as an organization that has become so concerned about demonstrating sound book-keeping that it is failing to promote the best science. Some say Genome Canada should be shut down altogether and its budget reallocated to the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), which distributes grants according to peer review. McGill's Bergeron has written to David Emerson, Canada's industry minister, calling for Genome Canada's president, Martin Godbout, and chairman, Henry Friesen, to be fired.

In a telephone interview, Godbout strenuously defended Genome Canada's funding practices and chalked up the complaints to a few sore losers. "Everyone that did not pass" due diligence is complaining, he says. "Those that have [survived due diligence], we did not hear from them." But it's a bit glib to write off such prominent investigators as sore losers. "They may be sore, but they're not losers," says Tony Pawson, the director of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute. "These are some of the very best young scientists we have in the country."

Serious complaints are also being levelled by scientists who survived the co-funding exam and who are still in the running for big Genome Canada grants. Mike Moran, another Toronto researcher, leads a 17-member team whose $10-million grant application is awaiting scientific review. "I spent more time on financial due-diligence preparations and looking at Excel spreadsheets than I did on the science," he says. "That's just not a good use of my time. And it certainly doesn't help me in a competitive sense."

The inherently collaborative nature of big science forces Canadian researchers to reach out to colleagues around the world. And it's not good news, once those links are established, when a grant application is refused, Moran says. When co-operation falls apart, collaborators revert to competitors. "It's a very delicate situation when we're setting up these partnerships with really strong groups in the States. They could be our best partners. They could also squish us like bugs."

David Thomas is the chairman of McGill's biochemistry department. His application for $11.5 million from Genome Canada for research into cystic fibrosis passed due diligence, but he's still not happy. "Co-funding? I think it's a crock," he says. "You make for poor science and weakened industry. Because industry says, you know, 'We'll just do incremental research and we'll get [federal granting agencies] to do things that are a little more risky.' And it doesn't encourage a risk-taking function within industry."

The effect on science is even more obvious, at least to the scientists. Lou Siminovitch is probably their dean. At 85, he has been called the father of genetics research in Canada. Over lunch in a bistro on Toronto's University Avenue, he argued that forcing scientists to be co-funding entrepreneurs dulls their intellectual edge in an intensely global competition for the best ideas. "It's bloody hard to be competitive," he says. "You have to think about science in the shower. Not about the next application that you've got to write. Not about the next report that you've got to write. Not that you've got to collaborate with somebody in order to do this. You have to think about your science. And it's a full-time occupation. You never know when your idea will come."

How does co-funding work? Most often, a researcher finds a private company that's willing to let him use a piece of laboratory equipment or some sophisticated reagents at cost; the profit margin becomes an in-kind donation that can be accounted as co-funding.

What kind of science gets promoted in that process? Science that's not too far ahead of common industrial practice. Science that's not too surprising or oddball. What kind of scientist gets promoted? The kind who's well-established enough to have a lot of connections in private firms and in faculties around the world. Establishment scientists, by definition. Not mavericks, and not youngsters with more wit and imagination than Rolodex cards. "Most really good science is not at a stage where it's attractive to industry," Pawson says. "And by the same token, the fact that it's interesting to industry definitely doesn't necessarily mean that it's good science. I don't know if Einstein would have got co-funding for the theory of relativity."

Then why require co-funding? Because the federal government and some provinces have so radically ramped up Canada's capacity for research, beginning in the late 1990s, that it's a challenge to pay for all the new science that's getting done. Since 1998, the federal government has budgeted $11 billion for research infrastructure, funds to hire researchers, subsidies to graduate students, and other science costs. This extraordinary effort received little attention from journalists or opposition politicians while it was happening. But its effect is obvious in big new research buildings on campuses across the country.

This investment probably wasn't optional. It compensated for years of cuts to Canada's research capacity through the 1990s. It barely kept Canada in the global game at a time when European and American research budgets were robust - and China's and India's research capacity was exploding.

But a big investment also creates a new reality. When you build dozens of new buildings and hire 1,446 new Canada Research Chairs, you're creating immense new demand for research dollars. "It's a peculiarly Canadian issue - I can say as an immigrant," says Pawson, who was born in Britain. "Canadians always worry about building world-class institutions. My view is that actually, Canadians are pretty good at building world-class institutions. What they're not good at is sustaining them once they've got them - because it takes a different order of commitment."

Godbout, the president of Genome Canada, insists his organization is part of that commitment and that its co-funding requirement is vital to stretching taxpayer dollars. He asked for nearly $500 million in the 2005 budget. But the Martin government has substantially slowed the Chrétien government's white-hot pace of investment into research. Godbout counts himself lucky to have landed $165 million for the current grant competition.

Genome Canada has always required applicants to find co-funding for their projects. This time, Godbout says, it simply made co-funding the criterion for the first cull. "We have to remind everyone that we're talking here of very large-scale projects. Genome Canada is managing public money. And we have to make sure that the money is used properly. You do not manage a $200,000 grant the same way you manage a $20-million grant. So you need management to do that."

To ensure that Maclean's heard a different perspective than that of researchers who are actively complaining about the current grant competition, Genome Canada provided a list of other researchers who weren't rejected during due diligence. Yet the first two researchers on Genome Canada's own list were unwilling to give the organization a hearty endorsement.

The best Aled Edwards, a genomics researcher at the University of Toronto, could say was that co-funding is a necessary palliative in a world of insufficient resources. "No scientist in Canada believes that there should be co-funding," he observes. "I am 100 per cent in agreement with them. If we had excess money that was dripping from trees, we wouldn't have it. But we don't live in Shangri-La. We live in a political reality."

Edwards acknowledges that co-funding puts a heavy administrative burden on researchers who would rather do research. "I have a lab in Britain that is funded by the Wellcome Trust, which just puts the money on the table and says, 'Here it is, go.' Do I prefer that? Absolutely." Indeed, Edwards argues that Genome Canada distributes such a small portion of all science funding in Canada that disgruntled researchers can simply work around it if they like. "One doesn't have to apply for [a Genome Canada grant], if you don't want to."

Tom Hudson, the director of the new genome research centre at McGill, was another scientist suggested by Genome Canada. He says that in the aftermath of the sponsorship scandal, Genome Canada's concern about watching every tax dollar is understandable. Then he interrupts himself: "It may be true that all the rules were followed, but the result is that major proteomics initiatives have been cut. It's not strategic not to have several leading groups in proteomics in Canada. I can tell you that Génome Québec [the Quebec government's own granting agency] is quite distraught about this."

What's shocking in so many of these conversations with researchers is how quickly the bloom of optimism that was so obvious in the research community only a few years ago has faded. There is far more federal money in research than there was half a decade ago, yet morale is sinking fast. Leading researchers are thinking of leaving the country, Tyers says. "Or they may just check out and put in a half-assed effort for the rest of their career. Students and post-docs see this bullshit happening and, you know, it's no inspiration for them to see me or anybody else frustrated because of all these cock-ups in the funding system. So the trickle-down effects are enormous."

See also SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT; GENETICS.

Maclean's June 27, 2005